Dana Ahmed Headshot
Credit: Sion Roe

UofG’s very own climate activist: In conversation with Dana Ahmed

By Jessica Northridge

Law and Politics student Dana Ahmed has set up two charities to combat climate change.

On the coast of Abu Dhabi, a fourteen year old girl speaks to the sea, unburdening herself about her school bullies. The sea provides a listening ear.

Dana Ahmed is now a young climate activist, in her second year studying Law and Politics at the University of Glasgow. At just twenty years old, she runs two separate non-profit organisations dedicated to ocean conservation, and was a delegate at COP28 last December. Dana is part of a wider movement of young climate activists. She is UofG’s very own world changer.

When Dana mentioned speaking to the sea to her grandfather, he told her that he, too, used to talk to the water. He quoted the Quran: “‘…and we made from water every living thing.’” He told Dana, “We have created everything that is alive from the ocean, so the ocean is alive. It listens, so it’s normal for you to feel comfort when you speak to it. It’s probably responding to you, you’re just not created to listen to it.”

More than 17 million metric tons pollute the world’s oceans, harming marine and coastal wildlife. Even rivers are affected by climate change, and 75% of fish in the Nile are consuming microplastics. And across the world, young people like Dana take up the fight to change this.

At just seventeen, Dana started her first organisation, Ecospectrum (@eco.spectrum on Instagram), which creates an accessible curriculum for young people on the autism spectrum, educating them in ocean literacy. It is the first organisation in the world with the goal of increasing ocean literacy among youth on the autism spectrum. Ecospectrum translates up-to-date information and current discussions surrounding climate change into comic strips which young autistic people can easily understand, even without literacy skills. 

“It’s a proper curriculum, like it’s something that is standardised that can be taught in schools everywhere. A lot of the curriculums that are online are not only very inaccessible, but they can be very shallow.” Contrastingly, Ecospectrum’s information is cutting-edge, with information lifted directly from the most recent dialogues. “It’s a lot more up to date so it’s more relatable, because it’s not just old news like ‘don’t pollute the ocean because plastic is bad’, it’s ‘what is this country doing? How is that affecting my region? How can we restore the ocean right now? What can I do today?’”

In doing this, Dana has provided a way for young people on the autism spectrum to become ocean literate to an extent beyond trivial ‘don’t litter’ slogans, and allowing them to make informed decisions regarding effective ways to help the oceans. 

Ecospectrum does not just cater to those on the autism spectrum either – the project is expanding to include other young people with ADHD, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.

Last year, Dana also started a new non-profit organisation, this time employing bedouin and indigenous women to crochet ‘Ocean Dolls’ (dolls based on sea creatures) from scratch, stuffed with plastic collected from the Nile and the Red Sea. The idea came to Dana when she was crocheting a doll for her friend. “I love to crochet.” Dana says, “because my aunt crochets and she taught me.” So, when she needed stuffing for her doll, she asked her grandmother to rip open a pillow so she could use the stuffing. Her grandmother refused, and told Dana to use plastic from the kitchen. Dana was sceptical – “I was like ‘its going to be so uncomfortable.’” But she tried it anyway. “It was so heavy, and nice to hold. I told my mum; ‘look at this.’ She slept with it the next day, and she still does.”

At this point, Dana had just visited Al Qursaya Island in the River Nile, where she had met and spoken to the indigenous women of the area. The women on the island told Dana about their everyday difficulties, much of which was centred around the state of the sea and the Nile. Dana was no stranger to the extreme pollution of the Nile. “Even the garbage men cannot keep track of it,” she said, “I was like ‘it’d be so cool if they could just get this plastic, clean it and stuff it [into the dolls].’ And they did just that.”

In August and September 2023, she carried out workshops to teach the women of Al Qursaya Island how to crochet. At first, Dana struggled with these workshops, but gradually the women started learning the skill, seeing its beauty, and teaching each other. “It just takes one woman who’s really, really, passionate about crocheting. It just takes that spark, and then she teaches other women, and that’s how it went. I taught initially for women, and then they all started making dolls for their nieces, their children, baby kids, cousins, whatever – and then the entire island started making dolls. I went [there] with the intention of wanting to sell these dolls, but I didn’t think it was going to be something this continuous; just a one-off thing that I could sell [the dolls] and help [the women].”

The dolls don’t just provide financial help to the women of Al Qursaya: they provide a sense of community, and act as art therapy to women in bleak situations. “They’ve been colonised, killed, stolen from – their land, their homes – they don’t have water, they don’t have food. It’s a really difficult life to live, and getting that glimpse of hope through art therapy, disconnecting for a bit and making these dolls. It’s just a sense of comfort. A lot of connection happens between them.”

The inspiration all came from her aforementioned grandfather, Asfour, who spoke to the Nile in his younger years, and told Dana that the ocean could hear her. In January 2023, Asfour passed away. Dana was grief-stricken. “I went to the Red Sea, where me and my grandad used to vacation a lot. As soon as I went into the water, [I had] flashbacks of all the memories that I thought I forgot about him.” Since this moment, Dana knew she wanted to spend her life advocating for the ocean. “I know something came out of my granddad’s passing: a lot of grief, but also, purpose. I wouldn’t have realised what I was created to do if it wasn’t for my granddad’s passing.” She says, “There’s a lot of work to do so, if not me, then who? If not people who have a purpose for the ocean, then who? I am almost, if not 100% sure that my purpose is for the ocean.” 

The new organisation making ‘Ocean Dolls’ was named after Dana’s grandfather: The Asfour Initiative. Despite its recent inception, the Asfour Initiative (@asfour.initiative on Instagram) has made a great impact on the women of Al Qursaya. “One woman told me, ‘You know, you made me speak to the Nile again.’ I sobbed for days after that.” When asked if she feels she has made an impact, Dana remained humble. “I’m proud of the projects, and I’m proud of these women and I like how it’s impacting them.”

So how does a twenty year old student in Scotland manage two NGOs based in the Middle- East? Dana keeps the bigger picture in mind, rather than focussing only on her university life. To her, the work she does with her organisations is part of her future, and once she gets her degree, it will be a tool to continue this work. “I look at it as one big project, and this is just part of the project, so I make time for both. I just tell myself, I don’t have to get A’s all the time. I have this work that’s also really important, and I care about it just as much as I care about my studies.”

Beyond her studies and organisations, Dana’s climate activism has taken her to COP events, such as the most recent COP28 in Dubai, where she was a delegate for the UK Youth Climate Coalition, lobbying for the inclusion of a security check against involvement in fossil fuels during the process of accreditation to enter COP. 

To young climate activists everywhere, Dana’s advice is to help each other. “You can only ever make an impact on your corner of people and if we all make – collectively – an impact on different corners, we’re going to save the world. But you can’t do it on your own.” Dana urges young climate activists not to feel stupid or embarrassed for asking questions, or asking for help, saying we must “get rid of that mindset,” and admitting that she, too, is still working on taking her own advice. 

Starting young, Dana has already become an impactful climate activist. Her spirit and determination are paramount to the work she has achieved, as well as her endless passion for the ocean. Throughout her life, she has developed a connection to the sea and the Nile – a compassionate friendship. I cannot help but feel that this is how she endures the red tape and lack of progress which can make climate activism so disheartening. Perhaps saving the oceans would feel easier if more of us spoke to the sea.


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